I came across an in-depth article on the revolt. But for those who don't enjoy reading a long article, here is a brief bit on the revolt:
Decembrist, Russian Dekabrist, any of the Russian revolutionaries who led an unsuccessful uprising on Dec. 14 (Dec. 26, New Style*), 1825, and through their martyrdom provided a source of inspiration to succeeding generations of Russian dissidents. The Decembrists were primarily members of the upper classes who had military backgrounds; some had participated in the Russian occupation of France after the Napoleonic Wars or served elsewhere in western Europe; a few had been Freemasons, and some were members of the secret patriotic (and, later, revolutionary) societies in Russia—the Union of Salvation (1816), the Union of Welfare (1818), the Northern Society (1821), and the Southern Society (1821).http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/155016/Decembrist
The Northern Society, taking advantage of the brief but confusing interregnum following the death of Tsar Alexander I, staged an uprising, convincing some of the troops in St. Petersburg to refuse to take a loyalty oath to Nicholas I and to demand instead the accession of his brother Constantine. The rebellion, however, was poorly organized and easily suppressed; Colonel Prince Sergey Trubetskoy, who was to be the provisional dictator, fled immediately.
Another insurrection by the Chernigov regiment in the south was also quickly defeated. An extensive investigation in which Nicholas personally participated ensued; it resulted in the trial of 289 Decembrists, the execution of 5 of them (Pavel Pestel, Sergey Muravyov-Apostol, Pyotr Kakhovsky, Mikhail Bestuzhev-Ryumin, and Kondraty Ryleyev), the imprisonment of 31, and the banishment of the rest to Siberia.
*It occurs to me that not every reader knows that before 1918 Russia was on the Julian calendar rather than the Gregorian calendar that the West used. There was a difference of a week or two between the two calendars.
The more in-depth article is here:
“Hurrah for Constantine!” shouted the men aimlessly into the bitter wind. On Dec. 26, 1825, stung by the winter morning, a disorganized group of 3,000 soldiers congregated in St. Petersburg’s Senate Square. Unsure of what to do, they awaited leaders who never came. By midday, another group of 9,000 soldiers had formed, commanded by the new tsar Nicholas I. Unwilling to dispel the rebels with force, Nicholas attempted for many hours to negotiate with them, only to have two of his senior commanders shot dead by the radical Pyotr Kakhovsky.
With dusk approaching, an impatient and cold Nicholas commanded his artillery to open fire. The insurgents fled immediately and after a brief standoff on the frozen Neva River were completely overcome. By nightfall St. Petersburg was once again quiet. Rumors of the revolt spread throughout the Russian Empire and several other cities saw quick and unsuccessful uprisings. By mid-January the last of these were extinguished, the chief perpetrators captured, and Nicholas reigned unquestioned.
The Decembrist revolt was a pitiable failure. It was a botched attempt to establish a parliament and constitution, free and empower the serfs, and limit the tsar’s authority. Its leaders were hanged or exiled; Nicholas’ reign, inaugurated by this feeble uprising, was more autocratic than ever. Yet the Decembrists marked the beginning of a new chapter in Russian history, one that lasted at least a century.
There had been revolts before — Pugachev’s in the 1770s, the Streltsy’s in the 1680s, and the Time of Troubles at the beginning of the 17th century — but none had tried to liberalize the Russian government in Western fashion. Two questions arose from the events of 1825: would Russia — could Russia — ever loosen its autocracy? And if it were to do so, would it grow into a limited monarchy or a revolutionary state?
These questions would become the main political undercurrent in Russia for the following century. The Decembrists became a central inspiration for 19th century reformers, both radical and moderate. It is arguable, in fact, that the Decembrist legacy culminated in the successful revolution of 1917 — certainly the Bolsheviks saw it that way.
The origins of the rebellion lie chiefly in the intellectual activity of the Imperial Army officer corps at the turn of the 19th century. During the reign of Catherine II (1762-1796), a Russian intelligentsia, something of an equivalent to French philosophes, began to prosper. Although this intelligentsia was influenced by European ideas, it was geographically far from Enlightenment centers in France, the German states, and the United Kingdom. It was repressed by a conservative empress whose claims to “enlightened absolutism” were superficial.
Despite this, the growing intellectual circles attracted army officers, who began to absorb concepts of limited monarchy and liberalism. During the first half of Alexander I’s reign (1801-1825), these officers and a small group of intellectuals developed vague dreams of sociopolitical change. The nascent thoughts solidified in 1814, when the Imperial Army occupied Paris after defeating Napoleon in the War of the Sixth Coalition. There, Russian officers were exposed to Enlightenment texts unavailable at home. They discovered on their return an autocratic state and oppressed society quite unlike that of their European neighbors. The intelligentsia observed peoples they had liberated, including French, Germans, and even Poles, receive forms of constitutional law after the fall of Napoleon — while Russians did not.
In February 1816, the disillusioned officers formed the Union of Salvation, whose founders would years later organize the failed Decembrist uprising. The organization’s aims were not particularly clear, but most of its members concurred on two points: the tsar’s authority must be curtailed by a representative body, and the serfs must be freed. Beyond these basic points, the Union was a divided group. A slight majority believed that the reform process should be mild and work within the existing system. A sizeable minority favored violent revolution and systemic change.
The Union of Salvation fell apart in mid-1817 and in its place emerged a restructured society called the Union of Welfare, which lasted nearly four years. Like its predecessor, the Union of Welfare experienced divisions between extremists and moderates. By March 1821 the problem resolved itself: the radicals and the liberals split into two different organizations altogether. These were the Northern Society, whose members ultimately became the Decembrists of St. Petersburg, and the Southern Society, a network of militant insurgents who planned to take the revolution a step further. This moment of separation took on historic importance: for the next century, the revolutionary intelligentsia in Russia was defined by this divergence.
The Northern Society was led by Prince Sergei Trubetskoi, Staff Officer Nikita Muraviev, Prince Eugene Obolensky, and the poet Kontraty Ryleyev. Although the society’s meetings occasionally mentioned violence as a possibility, it generally sought to bring about reform peacefully. Muraviev drafted the group’s constitution based on his experiences during the occupation of Paris: “The experience of all nations and of all times has proved that autocratic government is equally fatal to rulers and to society … All the European nations are attaining constitutions and freedom. The Russian nation, more than any of them, deserves one as well as the other … A slave who touches the soil of Russia becomes free.”
Idealistic, but wary of the failures of the French Revolution, the Northern Society was willing to keep the tsar in power, albeit constrained by a parliament elected by landowners. The tsar would function as a powerful executive who implemented laws passed by the legislature. The constitution aimed to provide fair, population-based representation for Russia’s many provinces. Russia’s 45 million serfs were to be freed, and although the landlords were to keep their property, peasants would be independent workers who owned their own tools and who were not bound to the land.
If the north’s ideas were innovative, the south’s were sweeping and extreme. Led by the radical idealists Colonel Pavel Pestel, Lieutenant Colonel Sergei Muraviev-Apostol, and Sub-Lieutenant Mikhail Bestuzhev-Ryumin, the Southern Society presaged a Marxist scenario in which the monarchy was to be violently overthrown; land was to be taken from the nobility and redistributed among the peasants; the state was to become a revolutionary dictatorship that would transform society to its liking. Pestel, an “ardent Jacobin” as the historian Anatole Mazour describes him, laid out his beliefs in an 1821 document titled Russian Justice, which contained such dynamic lines as “welfare for all, not for a few but for the majority,” “land is common property of the human race and not of private persons,” and the dramatic “nothing remains but to destroy society prior to any action.”
It was the Southern Society that pressured its sister organization in the north to stage an armed confrontation, as many in the latter party did not want to take this route. Pestel specifically visited St. Petersburg in 1824 to (unsuccessfully) demand that both organizations rejoin as a single radical group, and by 1825 the southerners convinced their brethren to help assassinate Alexander I in the summer of 1826, capitalizing on the transition period to occupy the government and implement reform.
But chance had it that Alexander died abruptly of typhus on Dec. 1, 1825. Constantine, Alexander’s eldest son, had renounced the succession in 1823, preferring to remain as viceroy of Poland. Thus the throne fell to Nicholas, who was deeply unpopular in the military for his intense conservatism. After some confusion about Constantine’s status as emperor, Nicholas scheduled for the Imperial Army to take the oath of allegiance to him on Dec. 26. The Northern Society viewed this date as its deadline for action, as an oath of allegiance to Nicholas would have been contrary to its cause.
Taken aback by Alexander’s unexpected disappearance from the scene, the agitators had a small window for action. In the month following the tsar’s death the Northern Society hastily arranged to congregate at Senate Square on the 26th. Members began communicating with as many soldiers as they could, seeking to discredit Nicholas among the armed forces in the St. Petersburg area. The society hoped to bring with it soldiers from at least six regiments and two elite detachments.
On the 26th, the revolutionaries got barely half of the soldiers they had hoped for. Trubetskoi and most of the other leaders didn’t show up. After trying to negotiate with the rebel troops and witnessing Pyotr Kakhovsky murder two officers, Nicholas made short work of the Decembrists. The Southern Society’s efforts in other cities suffered similar fates. Pestel, Ryleyev, Kakhovsky, Bestuzhev-Ryumin, and Muraviev-Apostol were hanged in July 1826 and buried on Goloday Island in the Neva. The other leaders were banished to Siberia.
These events shaped much of Russia’s intellectual life in the 19th century. It would not be much of an exaggeration to say that the Decembrist revolt was the single most important turning point in the history of the Russian Empire. Prior to 1825, meaningful critique of government and policy had been kept to a minimum, due either to the former’s extensive censorship program or simply belief in leadership. The tsar had traditionally enjoyed semi-divine status and was regarded as the “father” of the Russian people: a God-given, incontestable, ruler. The Decembrists openly called into question not only disagreeable attributes of Russian society but also the state that governed it. Their objections to the condition of Russia and its regime became the centerpiece of a new generation of reformers.
By the mid 19th century, reform advocates had separated into the two general camps. One followed the precedent of the Northern Society; the other of the Southern Society.
The first camp consisted of intellectuals and government figures who acknowledged the necessity for improvement, but sought to adjust the existing system to achieve it. Alexander II, for example, was open to ideas that his father Nicholas I had been (understandably) alienated from. It was Alexander who realized the Decembrist dream of the serfs’ emancipation four decades after the rebels had first petitioned the cause. Alexander loosened disciplinary policy in the military, expanded the scope of local government, and improved a badly managed law system.
Another notable descendant of the Northern Society was Pyotr Stolypin, a steadfast monarchist who recognized the need for change at the turn of the 20th century. Stolypin undertook an aggressive but peaceful reform campaign as Nicholas II’s prime minister. He worked tirelessly with the newly established Duma to draft legislation acceptable to both the tsar and elected representatives. Stolypin enthusiastically launched programs to improve the distribution and use of agricultural land. He advised the tsar, with mixed success, to consolidate strip-system plots into larger farms, import European methods of land improvement and irrigation, and introduce a more effective credit system for peasants. These and others, including Nicholas’ finance minister Sergei Witte, occupied a stream flowing from the Northern Society.
The other camp, that which found intellectual ancestry in the Southern Society, despised the “gradual reformists.” By the mid-19th century truly radical factions were emerging within the Russian Empire. One of these was the belligerent Norodnaya Volya (The People’s Will), which pressed for the formation of a representative legislature, universal suffrage, and complete redistribution of wealth among the peasantry (Lenin’s older brother, Dmitri Ulyanov, was a member).
Narodnaya Volya took inspiration from Pestel’s Russian Justice, with the oft-quoted motto “Nothing remains but to destroy society prior to any action.” The group turned to terrorism, targeting government facilities, conservative bureaucrats and army officers, wealthy men, and the Emperor. In 1881, Narodnaya Volya successfully assassinated Alexander II. In 1911, after more than a dozen attempts on his life, Stolypin too was assassinated by radicals.
That the Southern Society was the spiritual precursor to the Bolsheviks, there is little doubt. Lenin is famous for armed revolution and regicide, of which the south was the more enthusiastic advocate. However, the Bolsheviks appreciated the Northern Society and tended to view the Decembrist movement as a whole. Bolsheviks openly venerated the Decembrists as their forefathers. In 1925 they renamed Senate Square “Decembrist Square” for the centennial of the revolt; it retained this name until 2008. Goloday Island was renamed “Decembrists’ Island” in 1926; it still bears this name.
In 1826, after the trials and executions of Decembrist leaders, Nicholas I invited Alexander Pushkin to the Winter Palace to converse. The discourse between the two reportedly continued for almost three hours, an unusually long audience. Solomon Volkov describes the scene: “The emperor’s question to the poet was, ‘Pushkin, would you have taken part in the rebellion on December [26th], if you had been in Petersburg?’ Pushkin replied honestly and boldly that without any doubt he would have been in Senate Square with the revolutionaries. ‘All my friends were there.’ ” Nicholas forgave Pushkin for his honesty. It was unprecedented, indeed unthinkable, for a citizen to express opposition in the presence of the tsar.
The Decembrist revolt was the first crack in the tsar’s authority, and its descendant revolution of 1917 completed what began in 1825. These shivering idealists, silenced in their time, made an indelible mark in Russian history.http://www.realclearhistory.com/articles/2014/12/26/revolt_sows_seeds_for_russian_revolution_192.html